Saturday, 13 November 2021

Llethryd Swallet Reopened!

Digging team: Luke Ashton, Andy Freem, Antonia Freem, Duncan Hornby, Peter Kokelaar, Gareth Smith & Claire Vivian

Other contributors: Val Bednar, Alun Freem, Piers Hallihan, Paul Tarrent & Phill Thomas

Photos by: Andy Freem, Antonia Freem, Duncan Hornby & Claire Vivian


Llethryd Swallet is a cave found on the Gower peninsula that takes an active stream and became blocked in 2003. A team has been working on gaining access into the system for the last 3 years. Initial attempts focussed on an alternate way in, which became known as Barns Cave and is documented in an earlier blog. Although Barns Cave offered a promising alternative route into the main system a line survey revealed that it was trending in the wrong direction.

Attention was then focussed on the original entrance. A concerted effort was made to join the main streamway by finding an alternative higher route that avoided the blocked section.



Pushing alternate routes took the team into some rather tight spaces!

After several digging sessions led by the local cavers a breakthrough was made in August 2021, regaining access to the main stream and the way on to the impressive main chamber.

None of this could have been achieved without the permission of the landowners as there is no right of way to the cave entrances. Access arrangements have been set up for permitted caving groups, more details on access can be found at the end of this article.

Recent flood events indicate many passages flood to the roof as indicated by leaf litter, so this is a cave that is not to be entered under wet conditions especially if weather reports forecast heavy rain. The swallet entrance can back up several metres to the height of the cavers door entrance.

The swallet in low flow conditions. The cavers door entrance is just off to the right of this picture.
The cavers door entrance. Under high flow conditions this entrance gets submerged!
Note all the debris.
After any severe flooding the caver's door often needs to be dug out.

There are two technical sections through the entrance crawl that require great care, this is not a trip for novice cavers. The first challenge is under a scaffolded multi-tonne boulder named the S-bend. Small people can get into the void and get round the bend head first, the rest of us have to reverse around the corner legs first up a slope. So a nightmare going in but much easier going out! Large people will likely find this obstacle very difficult if not impossible to pass.

Andy entering the S-bend. The scaffolding is securing a large boulder above.

The second challenge is the Grim Reaper, a large boulder seemingly held up by nothing and the current way on is directly below it dropping onto a chock stone that appears to be holding everything together. The digging team is planning to shaw this up with scaffolding because my pants can’t take anymore of this!

After carefully navigating the somewhat concerning Grim Reaper everything gets considerably easier having regained the original main stream. Along here are some crawls and walking which eventually leads into the climb up into the main chamber. The ground becomes covered in a fine silt making it very slippy to walk on.

The cave takes on a dramatic change in size, initially passing a formation called the mushroom.

The atomic mushroom!

You enter the lower section of the main chamber and heading off to the left you pass many silt covered stals before entering the awesome main chamber.

Just before entering the main chamber the roof dips and you pass under various straws and helictites. One spiral shaped helictite makes a “zzzzzit” sound. On the first time I passed this formation I could not hear it but Claire swore blind it was making the sound. On a second trip the sound was louder and I could hear it but Antonia could not! Seems like the older you get the harder it is to hear.

The helictite in the roof that makes the zzzzit sound.

We managed to record the sound which you can hear by clicking on the link below. You’ll hear a tapping sound in the background, that was water collecting in a container. But in the foreground you will hear a very faint “zzzzit” sound at about 1 second into this 3 second recording. You might need to listen to it several times before you hear it and bump up the volume on your computer. But it is there I promise you that.



The sound the helictite was making. Note there is no associated video with this sound recording.

The main chamber is a large sloping boulder filled void, with an impressively large curtain dominating the roof. The formations have a grandeur comparable to those often found in other European countries.

Claire in the main chamber.

Luke at the stunning curtain in the main chamber.

At the top of the chamber is the formation known as the church and steeple which has been abused by past cavers climbing on it, no doubt for that glory photo shot.

This has become a centre of attention for restoration. I have to admit I was somewhat sceptical thinking the damage was done and whatever we could do was too little too late.

I could not have been more wrong.

Originally Andy had brought in a hand pump sprayer and I was amazed at the transformative power of this washing the muddy hand prints off the stalactite. What was dull and muddy suddenly burst into colour showing its translucent edges.

Duncan uses the hand pump sprayer to do the initial cleaning of the stalactite, note the muddy edges on the background stalactite, that's all gone now.

All I could think of was, I have a battery powered jet washer I use at home for cleaning my bike/car, that would blast off the mud!

We have had 2 subsequent trips where I have brought my jet washer into the cave and using water sourced from the stream we have begun transforming the damaged formation into something that frankly looks awesome!

Duncan using his jet washer, note for comparison the mud covered front of the base of the formation, much of that has started to be removed.

This formation has suffered significant abuse in the past and it will take several further sessions to restore it to its former glory for future cavers to enjoy.

The jet washer used was a battery powered worx hydroshot.

If you know the route, the main chamber can be reached in about 30 minutes from the entrance. No ropes\ladders are required to get to the main chamber.



Access restrictions:

Since the cave blockage in 2003, land ownerships have changed and all previous access arrangements (e.g., in Tim Stratford’s book) are now obsolete.

  • Llethryd Swallet can suffer total flooding, sumping the entrance series for extended periods. Passage instability exacerbated by regular violent flooding can add to the excitement. Cavers entering the land and caves do so entirely at their own risk and risk assessment. The caves must not be entered immediately after a period of heavy rain, or when significant rain is forecast. In winter, water backs up from ‘terminal’ sumps and submerges all access passages for long periods.
  • The issuing of a permit is not a guarantee that access will be physically possible.
  • Due to the seriousness of the cave no novice cavers are permitted. Several tight/sinuous sections in the new entrance sections have a ‘size limit’. Rescue from flood entrapment or injury would be problematic.
  • All cavers are required by the landowners to hold BCA cavers’ insurance.
  • The caves (within an SSSI) are gated and locked ( NRW and Landowner stipulations). A key will be made available on-site on the booked days only for pre-booked, permit holding parties (1 per day). Groups are asked to be considerate to others in the caving community by not booking multiple days at this stage in the re-opening process. Evening trips will be possible.
  • Keys must be returned to the on-site key safe immediately after each trip.
  • Access is free. We hope that groups will support and comply with the arrangements making this possible.
  • To avoid conflict with other landowners, access must be via the car park at the south end of Green Cwm (Parkmill), walking up the valley and crossing into the Llethryd Barns land at the south end. Detailed instructions will be given.
  • There is no right of way to the cave entrances and the agreed paths are only for use by permitted caving groups.
  • Full updated instructions and a (conditional) permit for Llethryd and Barns caves can be obtained by email. An illustrated instruction sheet showing surface access, routes inside the caves, and current issues will be sent with each permit.

Friday, 3 September 2021

Bath tub temperature caving!


Team: Duncan Hornby, Simon Lowis, David Mullin, Claire Vivian, Clive Westlake, Tomasz Zalewski


Dates: 28th August 2021



Passage in Little Neath River Cave. Photo by Tomasz Zalewski.




So the 28th August 2021 was a big day for SWCC, it was the 75th anniversary celebrations. With many friends meeting for the first time in probably over a year there was much caving to be done before the hog roast and Brian’s shiny cock award...

Brian's long service award, conceived by the late Chris Grimmett. Photo by Graham Christian.

Whilst many ventured into OFD a few of us took advantage of the dry period and hot weather to enter Little Neath River Cave lead by the dream team Clive Westlake and David Mullin!

The cave is about 30 minutes drive away from Penwyllt and you can park off the track near a bridge as shown on streetmap. You need to pay a good will fee of £1/pp at the Blaen Nedd Isaf Farm just up the road. You can download and print off a cave survey found on the UBSS website here.

The entrance is at the base of the cliff just before the bend in the river upstream of the bridge. It leads immediately into a hands and knees crawl in a key-hole shaped passage. With the river flowing directly into the crawling entrance you are instantly soaked and at one point up to your neck in it!

Claire enjoying a refreshing dip!

Thumbs up from Tomasz!

Now I would say this entrance would be very cold and miserable in winter but today the water was warmed by the sunshine and it was very pleasant indeed, a first for me for UK caving.

Thankfully the crawling passageway soon bursts out into a large stomping passage. With Clive sounding out passage names we eventually arrived at the canal, a very low section that is a floating/crawl for some distance. I would suspect this sumps in high flow. After the canal we entered Bouncing boulder hall where Clive took his rather impressive photo using old school flash bulbs!

Bouncing boulder hall. Photo by Clive Westlake.

We then carried on to Sump 2, the end for non-divers. The passages generally remain fairly large until the sump.

We returned to the entrance via the canal by-pass and took the opportunity to photo a wonderful set of stals.

Clive preparing his shot. Photo by Tomasz.

Claire at the stals in canal by-pass. Photo by Clive Westlake.

The crawl out of the entrance would be very challenging in high flow as you have the full force of the stream against you, but today it was easy, warm and not too many spiders...

Clive exiting the cave.

David resting on the cobbled side bar opposite the entrance, river Nedd Fechan.

I had not been in this cave system for probably over 5 years and had forgotten that after suffering the wet gnarly entrance you are rewarded with some impressively large passages. A great trip for summer.

We made it back in time for the Hog roast and plenty of beer drinking!

Sunday, 9 May 2021

The Mysterious Pitch

Team: Lisa Boore, John Roe and Claire Vivian 

Trip Date: December 2020


Like me, you will undoubtedly all have walked past this hole at some point when you've visited OFD2.


It is on the left between the mini traverses behind Big Chamber and the passages in to upper Arete Chamber, so really near the entrance to OFD2.
 
The pitch, just around the corner from Big Chamber 

With our evening trips we have been looking at going to areas in OFD none of us have been to before and connecting places via unusual routes. Having seen this pitch, but never been down it, this fitted the bill perfectly for the 3 of us. Being so near the entrance, it was also ideal for an evening trip and we were really lucky to choose mid-December mere days before the last Covid lockdown began.



John rigging the pitch

The rigging was 'reachy' and not straightforward, but John rigged speedily and we were soon down the first part and then on to the next 2 sections of it. The survey shows it as a P29, but there is also a P25 shown very near by and we were not sure if this was also on our route, so we had brought enough rope to cover both and some spare, just in case. It turned out there were 3 drops in all, so we were lucky to have enough rope with us. I should have written this blog months ago, as I've forgotten all the precise details; but I remember it was possible to rig the first 2 using the same rope as they were shorter pitches and close together.

Lisa at the top of the 2nd section.

The last section is a fine pitch, but there is a lot of loose rock at the pitch head to be careful of. The pitch brings you down in to the Labyrinth on the route you would take if you were travelling between Arete Chamber and the Columns. 

Claire abseiling down the final section in to the Labyrinth.



Saturday, 8 May 2021

50 and caving!

Team: Duncan Hornby & Claire Vivian

Trip date: 4/5/21 & 6/5/21


So... I've finally reached the big 5 'O! Tradition dictates getting friends, family and all my caving chums together for a big party.

Unfortunately for me, COVID stomped on that idea and although lockdown restrictions have eased up, there is no way I would be allowed to party with my friends... 😟

Thankfully Claire came to the rescue, saved me from a lonely birthday and dragged me underground (to be fair I didn't need much persuasion). Over 2 days last week we visited 3 caves on the Mendips.

So by way of kick starting the SWCC blog for 2021 I invite you to join me in my some what scaled down 50th birthday caving trips!

Fairy Cave


We parked at the Cerberus hut, got very lucky and bumped into a member staying there who informed us the code to the padlock had changed. Armed with the new code we headed off to Fairy Quarry to do the Fairy Cave to Hillier's through trip, a trip that Claire has never done.

My birthday cake at the entrance of Fairy Cave.

Keen to keep reminding myself it was my 50th birthday trip I kept the candles...

You try getting through that squeeze with candles!

We made our way to the connection to Hillier's, the flat out crawl in a puddle, which seemed like an obvious place to celebrate...

Yes, I have lost the plot...

So it was now time to sing happy birthday! Click on the video below to join in.


With my birthday candles finally giving up we entered Hillier's, and headed to the pretty Cambridge Grotto.

Cambridge Grotto formations.


Cambridge Grotto formations.


Claire back lighting a curtain.

Running out of time we quickly headed out passing through Tar Hall and the spider infested entrance to exit into late afternoon May sunshine.

Bath Swallet to Rod's Pot

2 Days later we returned to the Mendips to do the through trip. This is a short trip but with lots of variety. The entrance of Bath Swallet can be found in the first obvious depression on your left after the end of the track.

Claire and I at the entrance of Bath Swallet.

After a short scramble and crawl you get to the top of Shower Pot. This is a nice pitch, good for beginners, although the start of it is a bit awkward. There are several P-bolts and naturals to rig off at the pitch head and a 25m rope is more than enough. Having descended the pitch we leave the rope but take our harnesses.

Descending Shower Pot.

At the bottom of Shower Pot (with the pitch behind you), turn left and head down the obvious hole in the floor. Some crawling then you pop out at the bottom of Purple Pot. There thankfully is a handline in situ as purple pot is a bit slippery.

Claire climbing out of the top of Purple Pot.

You eventually pop out into Main Chamber in Rod's Pot and then it is a steep route finding ascent out of the cave. On the way back to the car I popped back into Bath Swallet and retrieved my rope.

Swildons Upper Series

With the through trip completed we headed over to Swildons Hole. We decided to keep this trip shorter and rather than blast our way down to sump 1 and back we were to explore the upper series and tick off as many circular routes that can be done.

Claire and I at the entrance of Swildons.

We are both familiar with the short dry way in so we attempted the long way in and ended up in a reasonable well decorated chamber before connecting with the main stream.

A chamber in the upper series of Swildons.

We then headed back out along the wet way out, which by its name implies you get quite wet! A word of caution there is a fairly tight squeeze along this route near the exit, large people will find that very difficult.

Although this trip was short it was really useful to link up sections of the cave and now provides alternate routes in/out.

So I hope you enjoyed my birthday caving and it will be great to read about others caving as more people get back underground?

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Another Year In The Life Of A Cave Videographer

Here's Caver Keith's traditional annual caving roundup video. It contains some previously unseen footage.
It’s not been the most prolific year for the studios in terms of videos completed, but it has been a very good year in other ways. Keith's completed a couple of commissions, gone back to his roots, won a prize and an award, completed a behind the scenes video which had been in the planning stage for a couple of years and got his best ever viewing figures on YouTube with over 10 million caving video views in 2019.


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Skyhook and beyond

Team: Chloe Francis, Duncan Hornby, Tim lewingdon, Helen Stewart & Claire Vivian

Trip date: 25/1/20


A few years ago Claire and I had the privilege of supporting a Freem filming trip beyond the sky hook at the top of Midnight Passage. It was quite an adventure and a part of the cave system I had certainly not visited before.

Last weekend a team of 5 got together to have a crack at the same route and hopefully lay down the foundation for future exploration in that part of the system. Helen, Tim and Claire had all passed through this section of the system on alternative routes but only Claire and I had been down the big pitch leading to Splash Inlet.

Claire, Chloe and I had to be back on the surface by 6pm as we were attending the Wealdon AGM Club Meal at the Abercrave Inn. With that in mind, Chloe, Claire and I packed the ropes the night before to save time in the morning.

On Saturday Helen arrived at 9:30am, we all did the obligatory tea/coffee/faff, shared out kit and were on our way to Top Entrance by 10:45.

Helen, Chloe, Tim, Claire and Duncan all looking sparkly, energetic and ready for adventure.
We powered our way through OFD II and arrived at the top of midnight passage collapsing in a sweaty heap ...Well Tim and I did! The ladies were of course barely out of breath! I really do need to get fitter!

Team having a short break at top Midnight Passage; Helen gets a power nap during the 1/40s exposure...clever party trick!
Whilst catching our breath I was told of some cool fossils just around the corner. I can’t believe I have never seen these, I must have walked passed them dozens of times.

In a small alcove where the team had stopped is a band of limestone with many impressive fossils.
The week before this trip I had been contacting various people to get a better understand of the rope lengths needed and top tips in rigging. The skyhook pitch has a loop of string that requires one to tie a rope off to it and pull up your rope, it was suggested a 40m rope would be enough, with length to spare.

Claire, Chloe and Tim waiting to ascend the Sky Hook.
Tim at top of sky hook.
Chloe stepping off the final traverse line at sky hook, Duncan in foreground.
Claire next to the curtains at top of Sky hook.
Helen prusiking up to sky hook.
On our way to what is identified as pitch “P20” on the map we passed many pretty crystal pools and in one place a fantastic curtain.

A close up of one of the many crystal pools that can be seen in the passages beyond the sky hook pitch.
Claire and a curtain, back lighting provided by Helen.
We finally arrived at pitch “P20”, we had a 55m rope and we backed up to a hole in the left wall, a small stal boss on the floor and this lead to a traverse line up to the two hangers in the left wall. I did a figure-8 off the final bolt for the main 20m hang. I don’t know if these hangers are “permanent” so it is probably prudent to bring a couple of hangers with you if you have any. Claire was the first to descend, no stopping her!

Duncan rigging “P20”.
At the bottom of the pitch is a very obvious “window” for the next pitch, which is marked as “P8” on the map. We had a 25m rope for this pitch and rigged off two boulders on the floor, 2 long slings were required.

There is a small hole off to the left as indicated by the arrow in the image below; you could go down that, and indeed Claire did, but I struggled to get through with my SRT kit on so the rest of us quickly abandoned that idea in favour of rigging the window. Be aware there are a couple of rub points (on both routes) so we used our tackle bags to try and stop this, would have been better to use proper rope protectors.

We went through the obvious window to descend the “P8” pitch. Arrow indicates the location of a small hole at floor level offering an alternative route down “P8” pitch.
Claire prusiking up small “P8” pitch. Arrow indicates where you would have popped out if you had crawled through the smaller hole.
We all excitedly descended and were ready to explore new territory...but then one of us looked at our watch. With some regret we had to turn around and start heading out as three of us needed to be back before 6pm.

Duncan looking a bit knackered after prusiking up”P20”
I personally felt we had achieved a lot, we had found our way to exactly where we wanted, whilst a strong team of experienced cavers it would probably be fair to say we did not have extensive knowledge in rigging. We have all done rigging but usually under the watchful eye of someone with lots of experience. So to be able to get ourselves down the pitches without any incidents was an important achievement!

Another lesson was just how much rope we needed, for P20 we brought 55m but 40m would have been fine even with our backing up to 2 naturals. The P8 pitch we brought 25m that could have been just 20m. So next time we will bring a 40m and 20m saving the weight of 15m of rope! In total we used 6 slings and 8 Krabs for rigging and rope protection. These stats do not include the skyhook pitch.

And finally I had forgotten just how tiring it is to carry a full SRT kit, ropes and rigging. I was knackered when we got out!

For the record we made it to the meal! :)

Trip Time: 6 hours